Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh.
5th October, 2018. Two 911 calls are made at roughly the same time, from the same house in Franklin Street, New York City. 23.35pm – Alexandra Avellino reports that her father, Frank, has been murdered, her sister Sofia did it and she’s still in the house… 23.36pm – Sofia Avellino calls, her father has been murdered by Alexandra and she’s still in the house…
It’s a bold assertion but Cavanagh is rapidly becoming the go to guy for legal thrillers, his novels matching the best of Grisham and Turow. The latest Fifty Fifty is about two women accused of murdering their father, one is a sadistic killer the other innocent, but which is which? Alexandra or Sofia. The DA doesn’t care, he’s looking to send them both down for the crime but, if not, either will do, as long as he gets a conviction. The women’s defence attorneys, Eddie for Sofia and Kate for Alexandra, are both disturbed by the idea that the truth will get lost in the circus of a high profile case, Frank Avellino was mayor of New York until November last year. The crime was brutal and frenzied and there’s a fortune in inheritance on the line, not to mention the possibility that a dangerous killer who could get away with it. Fifty Fifty is hugely entertaining, there’s plenty of drama, jeopardy and tension and Cavanagh directs his wry humour at some of the absurdities of the law. Reader becomes jury siding with one defendant, changing allegiance, before switching back again. Cavanagh manipulates the evidence as a good defence council would in court. Fifty Fifty is a heady mix of brutal murder and judicial shenanigans – delicious and thrilling. Cavanagh has the reader in the palm of his hand.
‘They’re back’
No, not an alien invasion just the most terrifying words in the world for an attorney – the jury is coming back with THE VERDICT. Eddie prides himself on knowing what a jury is thinking, he knows whether a client is guilty or innocent:
‘My biggest problem as a lawyer is I want the guilty to get punished and the innocent to go free.’
Sergeant Bukowski, NYPD first Precinct, calls Eddie Flynn when the murder occurs. Other cops are likewise call their go to lawyers – information for a consideration, (bribe). When Eddie arrives the front desk is like a lawyer’s convention; each gets to pitch the suspects for the right to represent them. Eddie manages to convince Sofia to hire him. Meanwhile, Theodore Levy is mobilising the full weight of his leviathan law firm behind getting Alexandra to take him on. Levy tells his junior Kate that the victim, Frank, was:
“Stabbed fifty-three times, my dear. And we are going to represent his eldest daughter. Both his daughters were arrested at the scene, and each of them is blaming the other for the murder. One of them is lying, and our job is to prove that it’s not our client. Understand?”
That casual sexism and lack of moral compass infuse the story. Kate has her own on going battle, she faces bullying and harassment from Levy. The problem is he can sink her career without a trace but she might just have one way to save herself and her client and screw over Levy. It’s a big play.
The novel is told from multiple perspectives; Eddie, Kate and “She” the anonymous voice of the killer. Sofia is damaged and has problems which won’t play well in court, Alexandra was daddy’s golden girl and she confident and composed. What both lawyers begin to suspect is that one of these women planned to be here and has been manipulating the whole thing from the start. “She” is prepared to kill again if anyone gets in her way. “She” didnt just kill her father she eviscerated him. “She” may be evil incarnate. There are plenty of revelations about the past as the tension and darkness in the story gradually ramp up.
Fifty Fifty is the return of Eddie Flynn, likeable and easy to get on with, a former Brooklyn con artist turned lawyer, (some might argue a natural progression). Eddie has a healthy disregard for his current profession; ‘For a lawyer, every case is a game.’ He loved exploding the pomposity and the insider privilege with his pointed cynicism.
In the novel the pursuit of justice is one tiny part of the process. This is a game where money and reputations can be made, securing a conviction matters more than securing the right conviction. The truth is obscured, if not buried, by process and prejudice in a way that should trouble readers, even if you’re not planning a murder right now! It’s easy to see how this system could chew people up. Cavanagh expresses a concern for how the law operates in America through his characters, from the plea bargaining that ensures innocent people plead guilty to corporate railroading of the process at trial to issues of racism and sexual harassment. There are plenty of thought provoking issues along side the fun here but the touch is always light.
Fifty-Fifty puts the reader at the heart of the dilemma the two lawyers, Eddie and Kate, face as they believe/disbelieve/believe in their clients. Naturally, clues, red herrings and sleight of hand pepper the story. I see why readers flock to Cavanagh’s novels you will too if you read Fifty Fifty.
Orion 9781409185864 paperback, 3/9/20


Little Sister Robert Lee Martin (1952)
Whether they cut her too much slack growing up out of pity for her mother dying when she was little or they just didn’t lavish the time on her for more selfish reasons, preoccupied with their own affairs, Little Sister grew up spoilt, her behaviour indulged. Now Linda is seventeen, life’s for living, rules are for poor people, the world’s her oyster. Only some thing happened last night can’t be brushed under the carpet.
Private eye, Andrew H Brice, gets a summons from heiress Vivian Prosper, she’s not the type of woman who calls into the office. When he arrives at the Prosper family home the first impression is real money. Vivian is lying topless on a towel by the pool in the back garden. Ever the gentleman, Brice makes as much noise as he can approaching across the lawn. She grabs her little sweater but her nudity around a stranger doesn’t seem to bother her much. Vivian is a divorcee, she reverted to her maiden name when the marriage broke up. Vivian is the older of two sisters, step-daughters to sportsman, Jerome K. Pitt.
The call is about Linda though, the Little Sister, Vivian admits she hasn’t done much of a job bringing her up since their mother died, and Jerome is far too busy to be bothered. Linda is about to turn eighteen when she’ll inherit her trust fund, a tidy little fortune: $300,000. Vivian wants Brice to scare off her latest beau, there have been men before but Linda wants to marry this one. Arthur Spotwood is a grease monkey, a gold digger. Vivian explains that Linda is not in love just infatuated, she’ll get over it, she knows her sister. Spotwood is pretty sure of himself he’s already declined a $5,000 bribe to get lost. Brice is thinking Linda is of an age to make her own mind up, he has reservations about the job, but he’s willing to do some digging. Linda isn’t around, she didn’t come home last night, not for the first time.
Brice is leaving as a red convertible rolls up the driveway and the driver’s head falls forward on the horn. Linda is wasted but the car looks undamaged, apart from a stain leaking from the boot, (trunk). When Brice takes a look inside he finds a body, a young man, stabbed in the chest. Vivian instantly dives in to protect her sister and they put Linda to her bed. Then they chat, Vivian’s attitude to Brice suddenly softens, she pleads for his help to ditch the body, make it all go away. Brice should call the cops asap, he’s resisting Vivian’s charms but it’s tough and she’s being awful friendly. They agree to hold off, take a run at Linda to see what they can find out. That’s when Brice realises the girl has been doped. They call a doctor, a little while later and she’d have died. Finally Brice calls the police. Vivian isnt happy but Brice is her only chance to get Linda out of a hole. Brice is caught up in a web of lies, family secrets, jealousies, revenge and desperation.
The story has echoes of Chandler, a deliberate evocation of The Big Sleep, that is then subtly subverted, (Chandler published a novel called The Little Sister, 1949). Little Sister is well plotted and throws up a decent surprise or two after lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Brice is a likeable gumshoe, he has a way of playing with the other characters and a shady edge that works well. However, it’s his relationship with Vivian and the interplay between the two that sparks all the way through the story, that’s a lot of fun. The tone is crisp with a touch of humour and snappy dialogue. In all an entertainingly gripping read.
There’s an interesting introduction from Bill Pronzini who corresponded with Martin towards the end of his life. Pronzini paints a sad and touching portrait of a lonely man who never gave up on writing despite long since having published new material.
Black Gat Books, Stark House Press, paperback, August, ISBN 9781951473075


Slow Bear by Anthony Neil Smith
I’m having one of those lazy days when I just want someone else to tear down the walls for me, set the world on fire – on the page that is, so I can feel like a rebel from the comfort of my armchair. So I step into the dark and dangerous world of Slow Bear. He seems like a nice guy, minds his business, drinks his drinks, all the time wondering what it would be like to party with Kylie, the Lady Barmaid, but that’s for later. Right now as we meet him at the Rez casino bar and he looks pretty calm. Things are about change, spiral out of control hardly covers it, twenty four hours from now Slow Bear won’t know which way is up, and that’s before the serious fun starts. A whole mess of mayhem and violence is just around the corner in this deeply cynical, blackly comic, modern noir. Clearly Anthony Neil Smith isnt paid by the word, he’s scrupulously mean with them, not a one out of place – this is taut and lean, as it should be. This is a sprint not a marathon but a lot will happens in a few short strides and all of it is going to be noisy and brutal and raw. Slow Bear isn’t about to pick a fight but he intends to finish what others have started. He could use a friend but I wouldn’t trust one of these guys with your pocket money let alone my life!
Dumb luck – the one time Micah ‘Slow Bear’ Cross tried to be a good cop he got his arm blown off by an angry vet who brought his war home with him. That was a year ago, now he lives off his disability, his meagre pension and a small settlement from the assailant’s gun company. Every day he’s to be found in the casino dispensing advise for chips. Jim chucks two $20 chips in front of him and asks him to find out if his wife is cheating on him. Hell, everyone knows Greta is giving it away to Vlad, the pit manager, even Jim knows. So Slow Bear gives him the advice he’s really looking for, something useful – forget about revenge. That way it pans out with Vlad dead, Jim in gaol and Greta free to shag some other guy/s. Shame faced and beaten down Jim crawls away, maybe he heard, maybe he listened. When Slow Bear gets to thinking about it, he remembers he doesn’t like Jim much so he gives Vlad a call, a word of warning, just in case Jim suddenly gets emboldened. Then Slow Bear forgets about it.
That night back at his trailer he’s contemplating the stars, I don’t think the meaning of life is on his mind but his reverie is cut short anyway by the noise of a car approaching. Vlad stumbles out of his vehicle all excited and shouting something about not meaning to do it. Do what? It’s only on the way back to town that Vlad admits what he’s done that he didn’t mean to do – he killed Greta, Jim too, but Greta’s the thing. Slow Bear is angry as he takes in the scene of carnage at their house. No way this was self defence, no way it can be made to look like self defence; three in Jim’s head, more in Greta’s body. She was getting off on playing the two guys against each other that must have hurt vlad, that or the blow job she was giving Jim when he burst in on them earlier in the night. Slow Bear says he can’t help, Vlad needs to call the cops, confess and plead temporary insanity or something. Vlad doesn’t see it that way, he turns on Slow Bear, he’s gonna tell the cops it was all his idea unless he helps. So now Slow Bear has to come up with a plan to save his own ass. As a former Rez cop he knows they aren’t going to investigate too hard as long as there are no loose ends so he puts Vlad through a scenario.
Next day Trevor Cross, chief (of police), catches up with Slow Bear. Trevor is smart, he’s figured out what Slow Bear done and there’s a price for that. A little job Slow Bear can do for The Hat, (The Chief/Chairman), tribal leader and oil tycoon. The Exile is back, The Hat thinks Santana still has his finger in the oil company pie and he wants him gone – permanently. There’s too much at stake to have Santana rocking the boat. Slow Bear is about to suggest he wouldn’t know how to help when Trevor snacks him on the skull with a bottle as a prelude to a classic demonstration of police brutality. Slow Bear is now, like Santana, an exile, persona non grata, trailer and car impounded, cards blocked – he’s going undercover, like it or not. Now he has plenty in common with Santana, might as well get used to the idea of helping The Hat. Turns out Santana has some nasty side-lines, when Slow Bear finds that out it all gets very personal, he wants to take him down big time. Let the PAIN begin.
Slow Bear has more arms than scruples – one. He’s a tough cookie who makes enemies easily. This is a novella bursting at the seams with attitude, gruesomeness and thrills. More of this I could stomach, heads down no nonsense, mindless noir – let the chips fall where they may.
Farhenheit Thirteen, Farhenheit Press, paperback, 9781912526673, available now.


Trouble is What I do by Walter Mosley
‘That phone number got me a night of bliss, a broken wrist, and, in the end, it cost a man his life. But that’s another story.’
And so it is, a throw away that just gives the reader an idea of Mosley’s ease with a wittily intriguing turn of phrase. Mosley has created two of the most robust and entertaining detectives in modern crime fiction; Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and Leonid McGill. The Easy novels chronicle a large slice of post WWII American history from the perspective of a black detective on the west coast. Leonid speaks to the modern experience of a black New York gumshoe, sadly illustrating that not enough has changed in the world, as recent events point up all too well. In that, these are very political and very relevant novels. Trouble is What I Do takes a sideswipe at what’s behind the Trumpian demagoguery and the, (still!), deeply racist nature of old American money and privilege.
Politics aside; for all their flaws, Easy and Leonid are likable characters and Mosley is a born storyteller and a veritable ideas factory. He has a way of setting a story running inside the main story that works to illuminate the important theme and later entwines with the heart of the action. It’s a pleasure reading about Leonid McGill, his complicated life and messy family affairs as well as his deadly cases. That said this is the least complex of his tales, a slight story, more a novella than a novel. There aren’t so many strands to pull together and I miss that, even though this is still a pulpy pleasure I would not want to forgo.
It all starts when Mardi Bitterman informs Leonid McGill they have visitors:
‘She’s the detective agency’s secretary-receptionist and also the human barometer that helps maintain my moral bearings in a world where sin is reflex and kindness a quick death.’
A tall young man with a battered guitar case, Lamont Richards and his ninety-two year-old grandfather, Philip Worry, known as Catfish, an old blues man, stand in Leonid’s office with a strange request. Catfish wants Leonid to deliver a letter to a white socialite, daughter of a private bank owner, descended from a family that dates back to the Mayflower. Justine is about to get married, the letter from her grandmother, Lucinda Pitts Sternman, was entrusted to Catfish a long time ago with instructions on when to deliver. It contains secrets about the family history that her father, said banker, would be prepared to kill to avoid her finding out. The case brings Leonid back in touch with his own past, the time he had to face down a deadly assassin and lived to tell the tale, (fortunately this time they might be on the same side). Leonid soon has to put Catfish and the grandson into hiding as they become targets, the links between the respectable city gent, with political connections, and the city’s most feared gangster become apparent.
Never was delivering a letter so complicated but it’s a lot of fun seeing Leonid try to make it happen. Leonid is best in a tight spot and he’s a very smart man when the fists won’t get it done he can figure something out. Mosley’s hardboiled detective stories are stylish and wholly in the best of traditions but with that richly flavoured, often bitter and brutal, black experience. I would like more meat on the bones but this is an exciting and entertaining story and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
W&N, hardback, ISBN 9781474616522, February, 2020.

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